Today, November 13, 2023, is World Kindness Day. Hmm. Isn’t that a topic for sermons? Or, something moralists love to go on about. Well, perhaps it is. But kindness is also closely linked to mental health. In fact, giving or receiving kindness can help reduce stress levels and ward off depression.
Kindness means saying or doing things motivated by genuine, warm feelings for another person. Along with its allied traits, compassion and empathy, kindness can positively transform lives.
In a 2020 UK study of over 4,000 adults, 63 per cent of participants agreed that when other people are kind to them it has a positive impact on their mental health. Interestingly, the same proportion of participants said that being kind to others betters their own mental health.
Motivational speaker and author of ‘The 5 Side Effects of Kindness’, Dr David Hamilton, says that scientific evidence has proven the power of kindness to change the brain, impact the heart and immune system, and even be an antidote to depression. The first side effect he talks of in his book is that ‘kindness makes us happier’.
Dr Hamilton writes on his website that kindness produces oxytocin, the love and bonding hormone, in the brain. Oxytocin reduces activity in the amygdala – a brain region involved in stress, depression, worry, fear and anxiety, he explains. Needless to say, when this hormone is released stress levels drop and feelings of depression are reduced. Kindness also makes the brain release the ‘happy hormones’, dopamine and serotonin.
Apart from the biochemical changes, helping others seems the ‘right thing’ to do. That’s why it gives us happiness and satisfaction. Also, kindness aligns us with a deep sense of spiritual purpose, asserts Dr Hamilton.
Kindness works in other ways to improve mental well-being. At times, kindness may involve putting another person’s needs before our own. In such cases, there is an element of altruism involved which boosts our self-worth. For instance, giving up a seat in a bus to an elderly person. On another front, we can show kindness by volunteering for a cause. This helps us build new social connections which is critical for better mental health.
In the spiritual realm, take the example of ‘Loving Kindness Meditation’ where participants wish others happiness, good health and freedom from suffering. Regular practice of this type of meditation reportedly impacts brain regions associated with empathy and happiness.
Kindness gives hope
Ahmedabad-based counselling psychologist, Meenakshi Gupta, says that when we receive kindness it gives us hope and a sense of belonging in a world where people are lonely. “We feel worthy when someone is kind to us. On the other hand, when we give kindness, it makes us feel needed and useful. It gives us meaning and the motivation to go on. All of us have an innate need for affection, hope, a sense of belonging and meaning or purpose in life. When we are growing up, if there is kindness in the home environment, we learn to be kind to ourselves and others.”
Meenakshi explains that American psychologist Dr Carl Rogers’ four core conditions for being human are: unconditional support, active listening, positive regard and warmth. According to her, these are also the basic ways we can be kind to others. Of these, the act of listening is a supreme kindness we can give another person, she adds.
Sending positive energy
Bengaluru resident Nitesh Batra is the founder of ‘The Mindful Initiative and Ashtanga Yoga Sadhna’ and is a Certified Compassion Cultivation Trainer (CCT). He says that we can show kindness to someone in our minds even when we cannot assist them in person. “Sending positive energy through our thoughts and intentions can have a positive impact on both us and the person we are thinking about. While it may not directly solve their problems, it offers emotional support and fosters a sense of connection. These mental acts of kindness can create an impact even from a distance,” he says.
Nitesh relates an incident with an airline when he was weighed down by the grief of losing his father. His brother and sister-in-law were still at the security gate and he requested the flight attendant to wait for them. “What happened next was so unexpected. The pilot, having learnt of our predicament, came out of the cockpit and helped my family with security. In ten minutes, they were aboard. This act of kindness by the pilot and airline crew is something I will carry with me all my life,” he says.
Kindness can save lives
Nishmin Marshall, former director of Saath, a suicide prevention centre in Ahmedabad, believes that suicide rates would drop if people were just kinder towards each other. “In my work at Saath I have observed that listening to a person in distress can make a huge difference. When people call Saath for help and volunteers listen to them with empathy, it makes them feel important enough to live. The caller feels that this is a safe place that they can trust. That’s why they open up. At Saath, listening comes from a sense of kindness.”
We can also be kind with small acts in our daily life, says Nishmin. Reading to a visually impaired person or accompanying an elderly person to the bank are such acts. These are small gestures for the doer. But for the recipient, who may be lonely or isolated, they mean a lot. Kindness just means caring for another human being. It brings a great deal of happiness both to the giver and recipient,” she says.
Eight ways to show kindness
- Call a friend who is going through a rough patch
- Smile at passers-by on your morning walk
- Listen to a colleague who is having work problems
- Offer financial help to someone in need
- Write a positive comment on social media when you like a post
- Send a motivational text or joke to someone who is lonely
- Help your parents with household chores
- Offer to tutor underprivileged children
It would be apt to end with a quote from American author and cartoonist, Scott Adams. He said: “Remember there’s no such thing as a small act of kindness. Every act creates a ripple with no logical end.”
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